Back Up Your Shit

I can still remember—vividly—the first time I lost something vital to a data loss. It was a weekend morning in late 1995 or early 1996, and I sat myself down at the family’s Macintosh Performa 560 to work on a piece of fantasy fiction that I was certain would be The Next Big Thing. It wasn’t, nor will it ever be, as any adult who’s seen it can tell you, but that’s not the point. The point is this: I popped my trusty writing floppy, the same one I’d been using since 1993, into the drive—and it wouldn’t read.

Corrupted, the Mac told me.

I shook my head in disbelief, muttered the denial that was rapidly taking hold in my brain. I ejected and tried again. And again. And again. But I got the same error every time. My floppy was toast, and my files had vanished.

It was all gone.

Some of it I didn’t care too much about at the time: the several homework assignments, the emails and forum posts I’d saved from a Robert Jordan discussion group I was part of at the time, files I’d downloaded here and there, stuff like that. It was a bummer, but not world-ending. (Although, truth be told, now I’d like to see them.)

But there was stuff I did feel the loss of—and painfully so:

An email from Raymond E. Feist, who had been kind enough to answer my stupid teenager questions and send me an explanation of some things about Midkemia and the Riftwar, along with some general encouragement as a writer. It was probably copy-pasta from a FAQ file he kept for such purposes, but to me at the time it was magical and priceless: my first brush with a Real-Live Writer whose work I enjoyed and whose career I had wistful dreams of, in some small ways, emulating.

My journal, which I’d been keeping for two years on that disk, and into which went cosmic quantities of angst and shitty poetry, but also some personal thoughts and insights about life and adolescence, all unique to me.

And biggest of all: a full hundred pages of manuscript, about half of the novel I imagined would be my magnum opus, on which I’d been laboring for well over a year.

All gone. Forever.

To say I was upset would be an understatement. I was crushed. I felt hopeless and betrayed. But mostly, I felt stupid and angry. And being a hothead, I went out in the backyard and beat a fencepost with a shovel until my parents started worrying that somebody would call the cops.

Then I cried.

The thing is, even as I raged at the stupid fucking floppy disk, I knew it was my fault. Paranoid as I was in that dumbass teenage way, I hadn’t backed up my shit on the hard drive for fear my parents would snoop, even though they never did. I hadn’t even saved it to another floppy. I was a colossal, galactic dumbass, and it’s not like I hadn’t been taught that floppies were fallible, temporary things. Like milk, meat, and politicians, they’re destined to go bad. It’s only a matter of when.

Luckily, I got some of my files back through an accidental backup. I had friends and relatives who’d wanted to read parts of my fiction and poetry, and I had teachers who had held onto some of my work for school. My mom had saved some things, as had my dad, and slowly a collection of hardcopies began to accrete, precious relics on paper, from which I made new files that I then backed up with religious zeal. I still have these today.

But some of it was really gone forever, like the journal and the email from Ray Feist, and most of the original manuscript to my shitty fantasy novel. I was able to recover the prologue and the first several chapters, but everything from Chapter 4 to the midpoint around Chapter 12 or so was lost.

I never did finish it, either, though I made stabs at it well into high school.

In terms of value to the literary world, it’s no big loss. The midpoint crisis involved magical hang gliders, for God’s sake, so I don’t think the planet is really missing out. But the fact remains that those shitty scenes and chapters were my shitty scenes and chapters. They were my first stabs at writing a real book, even if it was a pile of garbage.

And there was only ever one copy of those shitty chapters, and when it was lost, that was it. And now, almost twenty years on, I want to look at them again, to see what the good in them was as well as the bad, and to reflect on how I’ve grown and where I still need to work at things.

But I can’t.

In my daydreams sometimes, I imagine my mom will call me and say she found a box of my old floppies heretofore unremembered, and what should she do with them? In that daydream, I drive over to her house and I discover that they’re my long-lost shit, somehow recoverable, somehow stillthere. And I’ll get to reconnect with those lost relics, some remembered and some forgotten, and to have my data-self, such as it is, be whole again.

I know that won’t happen, because I took all my stuff to college with me in 1999, and the last of my oldest floppies went sometime in 2001 after I transferred everything on them to the first of many CD-Rs, versions of which exist today, in multiple places, nested like matryoshka dolls, one inside the other. Mom never had any of it. She has a number of my later backups, which I’ve entrusted to her because she has the soul of an archivist. But what she doesn’t have is my oldest shit, the shit I kept to myself and shared with no one else. Still, I like to dream of it.

Of course, you may wonder: Why am I telling you all this sappy shit? You’d rather know how the rewrites are coming on Oath, or when I’m going to review another movie, or what’s up on the Sofa.

Well, it’s related.

Last night I was putting in my time on Oath, and it came time to add in and vet some new material. So I dove into my working directory to pull up those chapters and look them over.

Wouldn’t you know: I couldn’t find them.  Anywhere.

I checked the desktop, the laptop, the several cloud backups, the DVD-Rs, the external hard disk, my stack of obsessively hoarded hard copies. Nothing.

I didn’t go out and beat a fencepost with a shovel, but I did travel back through time mentally and emotionally to that winter morning when my floppy disk died. And I sat at the desk, cigarette pinched between tight, thin lips, wondering what the fuck I was going to do.

The files in question were several thousand words each, and though I’d beat on them for weeks polishing them up before I shelved them for later editing, my memories of them were more than a little hazy. And I was going to have to recreate them, apparently from whole cloth. Panic washed over me—and then: a hopeful glimmer of a memory.

I’d written those files on my old laptop last year, a lumbering IBM ThinkPad that I’d had since the ass-end of high school and which I still used, at that time, as an occasional mobile workhorse. And if I’d written it there, then I would have saved it to a floppy disk to transfer it to the desktop. I was pretty sure I had transferred everything months ago before the ThinkPad met its end, but it was worth a look.

So I dove into my giant tub of outdated computer bits and came up with a box of 3.5” floppies and a USB floppy drive. After a few minutes of sorting through the box (boot disk, drivers, software, etc.) I found the disks I’d used for shuttling files. I popped them in and—they read.

And lo and behold: there were the missing files.

On a stupid fucking floppy disk.

That floppy was the only place they were. The single place in the universe where I’d saved them. Why I wasn’t more fastidious about those files in particular I couldn’t tell you. Probably I thought to myself lazily, Eh, I’ll get them tomorrow, and they never got done.

This time, I put the blame where it belonged: on me. I was a fucking dumbass, and I hadn’t made certain that everything made the jump. Currently, those files are where they need to be in all my various backup spots, and right now the printer is churning out hard copies. But it might not have gone that way.

And that would have been a personal catastrophe because—do you know what those files were?

They were the end of the book.

So the moral of the story is this: Back up your shit—or else.

All storage media are finite. All of them will fail. Put your shit in multiple places, and keep it up to date, even if at this moment you think it’s silly or insignificant or probably isn’t going to make it into the manuscript or whatever.

Keep old things. Keep stupid things. Keep sentimental things. This is especially true if what you have is the only copy there is on Planet Earth, the only one there will ever be. When it goes—and it will go—then it’s gone. And you might wake up some morning feeling nostalgic, or sit down to work some evening, and realize you need to see it again, but you can’t.

And if you’ve got stuff on old media formats, find ways to get it off. 5.25” floppies? Data cassettes? Old hard drives? Something else? Get it off. Get it converted. Get it in your current backup. That goes for other things like audio and video, too—especially if it’s rare or one-of-a-kind. If you don’t think you can hack the technical side of it, there are companies that will do it for you in exchange for your cash, and you may have friends or acquaintances who will do it for free or for beer or something.

As for me, I’m a pretty obsessive backer-upper, and have been for years, but clearly I’ve got holes in my system, and something very important almost slipped through. I’m taking some steps now to change that, and I might post about them here from time to time.

As for Oath, there’s still some work to be done, so keep checking back. Things are moving.

And as for the floppy disk—I think I’ll keep it around to remind me.